The problem with prairie dogs…

Resort and village tackle these prolific rodents

(c) Can Stock Photo / stevemeese

Prairie dogs and their burrow systems can can cause problems in areas where their holes pose a safety hazard or otherwise damage an area that gets a lot of use. How best to get rid of these underground relatives of squirrels came to fore in Angel Fire this week, including Angel Fire Resort’s “explosively” controversial method and a method discussed at the Angel Fire Council regular meeting Tuesday (July 25).

Monday and Tuesday morning (July 24 and 25) Angel Fire residents (and dogs) were startled by multiple loud explosions. A few took to social media to discuss the noise:

“Great plan Angel Fire, deploying explosive gasses at 7:45 am daily to rid us of prairie dogs,” Randy Schell posted on Facebook. In the resulting conversation that followed, Angel Fire Mayor Barbara Cottam let residents know this was not a village effort.

“The gunshot type blasts heard earlier this morning in Angel Fire were a result of Angel Fire Resort’s prairie dog mitigation efforts,” Maya Lengerich, Risk Manager at Angel Fire Resort wrote in an email statement in response to a request from The Chronicle. “The resort was testing a new method designed to alleviate prairie dog issues in the area. The scope of work was limited to Angel Fire Resort property. Angel Fire Resort sought prior authorization for use of the system from the village and local law enforcement. The system was much louder than anticipated by all parties involved. The test phase is complete. The resort is still evaluating the effectiveness of the efforts.”

The resort did not specify where its mitigation efforts were taking place, but a witness told The Chronicle she saw the teams working at the resort’s welcome center on North Angel Fire Road and at Frontier Park. The resort also did not specify what method they were testing, however, given the explosive nature of the method and the lack of a weapon like a gun, it was likely either gas cartridges or a new method used by ranchers called the “Rodenator,” which not only kills prairie dogs but also flattens their tunnels, according to “Oxygen is mixed with propane and injected into the prairie dog burrows. Propane is heavier than air, so the mix sinks into the tunnels and dens. It is ignited and produces an expanding force that reportedly travels 5,000 feet per second. The concussion flattens the tunnels and kills 90 percent of the prairie dogs…. There is no poisonous residue remaining to threaten the environment or health of humans.”

At the Tuesday evening council meeting, Tracy Orr, who wears multiple hats at the village including sales and marketing for the Allen Fields soccer and softball fields, reported prairie dogs were burrowing under and through the athletic fields’ artificial turf. 

She introduced USDA Wildlife Specialist Cody Hazen who told council his department could address the issue for a nominal fee. “The only thing we would charge the village is for the cost of the pesticides.”

He explained because the area’s Gunnison’s prairie dogs hibernate, his department could tackle the problem in early spring using “aluminum phosphide or the USDA gas cartridge which turns into phosphine gas. [Aluminum phosphide] reacts with the moisture in the air and turns into phosphine gas so all that’s left is inert elements. Even if another animal eats the dead prairie dogs there is no harm.”

Mayor Cottam quipped, “As long as there’s no explosion I guess we’re OK.”

Hazen suggested the village send someone to get licensed, noting, “We’re not a permanent fix, we’re more of a band aid. All it is is a maintenance issue like cutting the grass.”

Prairie dog mitigation or eradication is often controversial in the West. Some question whether such removal is even necessary. For example, the group Defenders of Wildlife notes, “Prairie dogs are considered a ‘keystone’ species because their colonies create islands of habitats that benefit approximately 150 other species” including the endangered black-footed ferret and “prairie dogs make up more than 90 percent of the black-footed ferret’s diet.”

Long considered a major pest by ranchers, there are now data that support prairie dogs’ potential benefit to cattle. However, prairie dogs carry fleas that sometime harbor a bacteria known to cause bubonic plague in pets and humans and, according to the National Park Service, “the plague usually appears when there is a stress in the prairie dog population” particularly overpopulation.

Angel Fire Resort and the Village of Angel Fire’s efforts seem centered around removing a pest that either mars the landscape or otherwise poses a threat to humans in areas — like Frontier Park — that get a lot of foot traffic.